The garden of the summer of 2010 that I put away this morning was fair: more productive than some disastrous years we’ve had, not nearly as bountiful as 2002, or as 1981, our biggest and best garden ever. The goodness or badness of a garden is relative,Â against the standards of a lifetime of tended and care-for plots that have come and gone. I say “lifetime” as if I’d done this 62 times, as if gardens were as regular as birthdays. But in truth, the number of gardening years has been less than half the grand total.
Now that I think about it, other than a few tomato plants my mother sometimes grew behind our three Birmingham suburban homes of my youth, I was as unfamiliar with rooted and growing garden vegetables as my grand-daughters are today.
My first intentional personal garden, modest as it was, must have been during my second year of graduate school, age 23. By that time, we’d left the concrete block “married students” ghetto at Auburn and moved into a house that had the bad fortune to have been built in the 30s on a residential block some distance from the edge of campus of that day.
By the early 70s, this quiet street, Wrights Mill Road, and all the little lanes nearby were overtaken by the pseudopodia of a growing student body extending its arms for habitat into once-secluded neighborhoods near campus. We grew a few squash plants out back, and were mighty proud of the back-to-the-land cred we thought that bought us during the bell-bottom era. We intended better than this some day–maybe a real homestead of our own.
It was three years later, the summer of 1975 after we moved to Virginia that we had our first serious, sustained, intentional and reasonably successful garden. It was the first time I’d ever used a tiller (a rear-tine torture machine loaned by our neighbor) to attack the impossible clods of clay under the sod of our chosen spot on Withers Road in the town limits of Wytheville.
By then, I had me a manly truck (a little Datsun that started rusting through the first summer we had it.) I hand-forked and hauled three heavy batches of very fresh manure and bedding hay from the cattle auction barn on the edge of town. Given all that nitrogen in the uncomposted waste, the vigor of the pigweed and poke that year was impressive. The veggies, not so much. I had a lot to learn. Even so, Ann canned some of what we made that year–another first, to be repeated most but not all the years we’ve gardened since.
So by 1981, we’d moved from town to the country–and at last, had the little homestead we’d imagined since Wrights Mill Road. Mother Earth News: we have arrived! There on Greasy Creek, we had 20 acres, no nosey neighbors, the freedom to fail in our own way, and lots of southern exposure. I took a free class at the vocational school, and got all the peat pots, potting soil and seeds we could possibly use–and then some. I grew and threshed our own wheat that first year on the farm. We had more than 50 tomato plants that season. The kids cranked the Squeezo–a form of child-slavery torture for which they’ve never forgiven me–to make anything that could be made from tomatoes.
There were the barren years back in Birmingham, 1987 to ‘89, when we didn’t have either the time, space or left-over energy to garden. But as soon as we landed in Sylva, I bought a Honda tiller to replace the Troy-bilt we sold when we left Wytheville, and we were gardening again. And after moving to Morganton in ‘91, a half-block from the Rec Center, we made a garden so close to the sidewalk, I was afraid it would surely be vandalized. It was.
I moved to Walnut Knob, way out on the parkway, in 1997, and was overcome with gratitude the first time I stepped inside that little fenced garden and orchard to dig my hands deep in the dark loam. But we knew it was not going to be our final garden. There was some place we belonged, and we waited for it to be revealed to us.
That would end up being exactly where I sit today, in a frost-pocket deep valley with rocky soil, our garden now inside the stockade fence, from which I have just come. We’ve gardened here since the summer of 2000. It is the last place we will grow vegetables, Lord willing, as we hope to never move from this place while living.
As surely as there was a first garden in my life, there will be a last garden. The reality came to me this morning as I pulled the cherry tomato vines from the eight-foot cattle-panel walls of our vegetable fortress. It might not be this one; probably won’t. But at some point, I will have planted my last seed, pulled my last weed, eaten my last home-grown tomato, and washed the garden soil from under my fingernails with a sense of pride and satisfaction for the last time.
I’m not being morbid or morose, though that sense of finality’s approach does weigh more heavily on me with every passing season. It should not bring so much sadness as appreciation, not so much a sense of loss as a determination not to take a single seed, weed, or ray of sun for granted in the summers we have left.
It looks mighty empty and forlorn out there this afternoon, all bald and bare and brown. But actuarially speaking, we’re likely to watch the whole show all over again, come May, June, summer and fall harvest of 2011. I hung up the hoe and mattock today. But not for good. I saved seed from this year’s heirloom beans and tomatoes. And I’ll be ready, come spring, to enjoy next year’s garden as if it were my last.